Exploring the Last 3 Limbs of Yoga: Incorporating Yoga Philosophy Into Your Class

In this blog series, we are discussing the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – one of the foundational texts of yoga in which the ancient roots of the yogic philosophy and practice lay. We are discussing the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The eight precise steps that, according to Patanjali, lead us to reaching self-realization and living a purposeful life. 

In the previous blogs of the series, we discovered the external limbs of yoga; the 5 yamas – ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha – (the ethical guidelines), the 5 niyamas – saucha, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana – (the inner observances), asana (the physical practice of yoga poses) and pranayama (the practice of breath and prana regulation). We also discussed pratyahara (the withdrawal of the senses), the bridge between the external and the internal limbs of yoga, preparing practitioners as they move towards the more subtle aspects of yoga. 

Today we are going to have a closer look at the final three limbs, the so-called internal limbs of yoga; dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

Dharana, the sixth limb of yoga, means concentration. Its goal is to bind our consciousness to a single object or thought. Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga and it refers to the state of contemplation and meditation. Samadhi is the deep absorption, the highest state of consciousness that derives from meditation, at the end of the eight-limb path of yoga. 

Once they find stillness in the body, they will quickly notice how un-still the mind is.

In Patanjali’s Words…

“Deshah bandhah chittasya dharana” (sutra 3.1)

Chapter 3 of the Yoga Sutras is entitled Vibhuti Pada, which means the chapter on progressing. And it starts by presenting the last three limbs of yoga. According to the first sutra of the chapter, dharana is the process of fixing our mind’s attention onto one object or place, and it is the sixth of the eight limbs.

“Tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam” (sutra 3.2)

In the second sutra of the chapter, Patanjali suggests that the repeated continuation, or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called dhyana (absorption in meditation), and it is the seventh step of the eightfold path.

“Tad eva artha matra nirbhasam svarupa shunyam iva samadhih” (sutra 3.3)

The third sutra tells us that when only the essence of that object, place, or point shines forth in the mind, as if the mind is devoid even of its own form, that state of deep absorption is called samadhi or deep concentration, and it is the eighth limb.

Why Practice These Three Limbs?

Practicing dharana, dhyana and samadhi is definitely way different than perfecting an asana. But it is what yoga is all about in the first place. Although the process might be challenging, the benefits of bringing these last three limbs into practice are literally life-changing.  

We could say that when we practice dharana, we practice gaining control over the mind. We learn that the thoughts that constantly come and go are not beyond our control. And just like training and strengthening a muscle, we train and strengthen our mind to focus on one object or thought. The mind gradually becomes more peaceful. And it prepares itself on the way to meditation. At the same time, when one has been practicing dharana, they quickly realize that finding concentration in different situations of their daily lives becomes easier. It helps in becoming more aware of our mind throughout the day, feeling more relaxed and dealing with stressful events more effectively. We get to learn that we can control where our attention goes and find some rest, even through hard times. 

While dharana teaches us the one-pointed focus, the next limb, dhyana, comes to bring about awareness without the focus. This sustained state of meditation moves us from the state of doing to a state of simply being. It is the instrument of self-discovery. It opens up a new way of approaching our inner self and remembering that we are much more than our physical body. And once we experience this on our mats, we realize that there is something we can return to in our daily lives as well, motivating us to flow through challenges with more grace and acceptance.

With dhyana, there is still an observer observing an object. When the observer becomes so absorbed in the process of observing the object, that it seems like only that object exists, we have the beginning of samadhi, the state of bliss. It is as if the observer, the process of observing and the object being observed become one. The interesting thing is that, no matter how hard it might be to believe, we are in samadhi right now. We are in fact pure consciousness and bliss, but we have difficulty actually experiencing it because of our thought patterns and our perceptions of who we are. Patanjali teaches us that we are capable of being fully present and experiencing samadhi at any moment. And understanding so becomes a fundamental acknowledgment of our true nature. 

Text Exploring the Last 3 Limbs of Yoga Incorporating Yoga Philosophy Into Your Class

How to Introduce Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi in your Yoga Classes

If you wish to introduce the concepts of dharana, dhyana and samadhi to your students in class, start with inviting them to find a seated position. This seated position should be steady and comfortable and this is probably the foundation to meditation, as tension in the body may pull their attention away from the practice. So, encourage them to use any props they like. 

Then, ask them to focus their attention on something. This could be a specific part of the body, their breath, a sound, a mantra, or a physical object like a statue of a deity or the flame of a candle. Remember that practicing meditation requires taking it one step at a time. At first, 5 to 10 minutes will do. And remind your students that meditating is not about ceasing thought. Once they find stillness in the body, they will quickly notice how un-still the mind is. After all, it is the nature of our mind to jump from one thought to the next. Encourage them to observe the thoughts that arise instead, and let them go without judgement, simply by returning to the object of their attention. At some point, they will feel a deep sense of unity with this object. And this is the key to reaching the liberation of samadhi. 

Final Thoughts

Most of us are probably practicing yoga to feel good and to find calmness during our otherwise stressful days, meeting demanding deadlines, getting stuck in traffic on our way to work or taking care of our kids. So, applying all guidelines from Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga, and moving from dharana to samadhi, so as to reach a permanent state of bliss, might sound utopian. Yoga, however, involves a whole set of practices, and we can take from it those we can relate to at the time being. So, there is no need to be discouraged. After all, as Patanjali teaches us, finding brief moments of light is completely within our hands!

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Magda Chatzinaki
Magda Chatzinaki is a writer and yoga teacher, on a mission to spread the bliss! She believes that there is great joy in the little things in life. When she’s not writing or practicing yoga, she’s probably somewhere biking, enjoying nature or hanging out with her loved ones.

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